Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait enamel of the actress Sarah Siddons (née Kemble) (1755-1831), wearing pale yellow dress with blue belt and white chemise, her hair powdered, red curtain background 

Henry Spicer (1743-1804)

Portrait enamel of the actress Sarah Siddons (née Kemble) (1755-1831), wearing pale yellow dress with blue belt and white chemise, her hair powdered, red curtain background, Henry Spicer
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Enamel on metal
 
Provenance:
Reputedly given by Mrs Siddons to Dorothea Rooper, Lady Sunderlin (1745-1831), who bequeathed it to her niece; Sotheby's, London, May 1946 (Ex Ashcroft Collection); M Papier Collection (no.169)
Exhibited:
Victoria and Albert Museum 1924-1939
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Sarah Siddons was the most successful tragic actress of the 18th century and was most famous for her Shakespearean roles including Lady Macbeth; she is often considered the greatest female performer in English theatrical history. She was painted in larger portraits by rival artists Joshua Reynolds, as the Tragic Muse, and Thomas Gainsborough. Although famous in her own lifetime and hugely wealthy, her personal life was plagued with tragedy, her marriage became increasingly unhappy, later separating from her husband William Siddons and she outlived five of her seven children.

Sarah Siddons (née Kemble) was born in 1755, the first of twelve children to Roger Kemble, an actor and theatre manager and his wife, Sarah Ward. Interestingly, all of their daughters were baptised as Protestants after their mother Sarah and all of their sons were baptised Catholics after their father Roger. Sarah attended Mrs Harris’ School for Young Ladies at Thornloe House in Worchester on a full scholarship and joined her father in Kemble’s company, playing a variety of different roles. At the age of fourteen Sarah met William Siddons through Kemble’s company but her family did not approve of the match and when this subject was broached it merely strengthened their relationship. Roger Kemble dismissed Siddons from the company and sent Sarah into service in 1770 with the Greatheeds of Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick, where she remained for two years. Corresponding with William Siddons throughout, her parents finally gave their consent to the marriage which took place in 1773 in Coventry.

The couple joined Chamberlain and Crump’s company in Cheltenham in 1774 and it was there that Sarah’s talents were discovered in Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d. That same year she gave birth to her first child, Henry, and David Garrick, the most famous actor of the eighteenth century and theatre manager of Drury Lane, sent Tom King to Cheltenham to view Siddons’ work. In December 1775, after the birth of her second daughter, Sarah Martha, Sarah Siddons joined Garrick’s Drury Lane Company and debuted as Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Her performance of the well-known Shakespearean character was a disaster, she was uncomfortable in the large Drury Lane theatre, intimidated by the London crowd and lost her nerve. Negative reports of her performance circulated and she was disengaged from Drury Lane theatre in 1776 after struggling for six months in minor comic parts.

Sarah Siddons spent six years rebuilding her confidence and reputation outside of the capital in Manchester, Bristol, Bath and York, where she became a favourite. She performed the roles of Constance in King John, Katherine in Henry VIII, and Lady Macbeth for which she became most famous, and was befriended by socialites and London’s elite including the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana. With the promise of higher wages, Sarah moved back to London where she was persuaded to re-join the Drury Lane Theatre under Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s management in 1782. By this time Sarah had five children but Eliza Ann, her fourth child, died in infancy. She was a great success in London, reportedly sending sensitive spectators into hysterics during her first role in Garrick’s version of Thomas Southerne’s Isabella, or, The Fatal Marriage.

In 1783 she was invited to read for the king and queen and was appointed reader to the princesses. Although at this stage Sarah’s fame could not be more prolific, she found out that the illnesses that had affected her for over a decade were due to venereal disease from her husband and his infidelities. In 1787, the same year that this miniature was painted, Thomas Lawrence arrived in London, aged 18, he was charismatic, narcissistic and charming and although Sarah had feelings for the young artist herself, Lawrence engaged in a relationship with her daughter Sally, then 21. After the marriage proposal was refused by Sally’s parents, Lawrence engaged in a relationship with Maria, Sarah Siddons’ daughter of 18, however, Maria soon became unwell with consumption and died shortly afterwards. Sally died five years later having sworn to Maria to never engage in another relationship with Lawrence.

Siddons’ last new role was Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, she experimented with cross-dressing in her role as Hamlet in 1802 and her swordplay was highly praised after being trained by the fencing master Mr P. Galindo. Aged 75 on 31st May 1831 Siddons fell into a coma with acute erysipelas and died the following morning, having never regained consciousness.

Henry Spicer, miniaturist, enamel painter and engraver, was born in Reepham in Norfolk in 1742 and was the pupil of Gervase Spencer and the teacher of William Birch (1755-1834), the artist who may have introduced the art of enamel portraits to America. He was a member of the Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain and was appointed secretary in 1773. In 1770 he was elected a member of the Society of Antiquaries and exhibited for the first time in the Royal Academy in 1774. He later relocated to Dublin where he lived for several years, returning to London in 1782 where he painted this miniature in 1787.

Spicer painted the Duke of Northumberland, the Earl of Moira, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Lord Nelson as well as Sarah Siddons and amongst his friends were George Stubbs, William Hamilton and Ozias Humphry, a fellow miniaturist who lodged with the Spicers until his own death in 1810. He was appointed painter on enamel to the Prince of Wales in 1790 and had two daughters who both followed his profession, Miss M.A. Spicer and Miss J. Spicer.

Siddons was naturally painted by all of the great artists during her career, with Gainsborough famously commenting on her most noticeable feature; “Confound the nose, there's no end to it.” She may have been introduced to Spicer through an oil painter, perhaps Reynolds or Romney, or through a friend. She was painted in miniature many times, by Horace Hone, Richard Crosse, Jeremiah Meyer and of course by Richard Cosway.

Painted in 1787, at the very height of her career, Spicer has depicted the incomparably famous actress in day dress, the only hint of drama being in the red curtain background behind her head. Depicted in the same year that Downman also portrayed Siddons, Spicer’s portrait gives a sense of the woman behind the role, her ensemble free of jewels. The fact that the portrait was not displayed at the Royal Academy may suggest that it was a private commission.
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